Awaiting Skins, Cowboys have regained spurs


IRVING, Texas -- On a fertile expanse of prime property northwest of Dallas sits the palatial estate of the Dallas Cowboys.

With its contemporary one-story design, its brick driveway, its labyrinth of corridors and meeting rooms, and its gigantic locker room, it is an opulent reminder of another chapter in Texas history.

Once, this was the star-spangled home of America's Team. But times changed, the economy faltered, the Cowboys fell, and Tom Landry was fired.

Today, Valley Ranch is simply the home of Jimmy Johnson's team. In Dallas, that seems to be good enough.

After a two-year absence, the Cowboys return to prime-time television tonight (9, Ch. 13) against the Washington Redskins in Texas Stadium. The combination of "Monday Night Football" and the Redskins' rivalry was sufficient to push ticket sales to 63,834. On Friday a local food-store chain bought out the remaining 1,190 seats to lift the TV blackout.

If Texans have not flocked to Texas Stadium the way they once did, they at least have warmed to the new breed of Cowboy after a distinctly cool period.

What has won the fans back is the Cowboys' retooled image. That image includes Johnson's fiery persona as coach, the pinpoint passing of quarterback Troy Aikman, the slippery running of Emmitt Smith and a defense that has held opponents under 300 total yards for seven straight games.

From the depths of 1-15 in Johnson's first year, the Cowboys rose to 7-9 in 1990, missing the playoffs by the margin of Aikman's season-ending shoulder injury in Philadelphia in game 15. This year Johnson openly talks about making the playoffs, a subject his players treated cautiously last week.

"We're more confident in our abilities now," said safety Bill Bates. "That gives you some excitement about the season. We'd be disappointed if we don't make the playoffs. That's what we're striving for."

Said Smith, "Nothing is realistic until you get there."

Bates, a nine-year veteran, is one of 13 survivors of the Landry/America's Team era. He lost his job as starting strong safety under Johnson but kept his position as special teams leader.

"The two regimes are alike in that both are committed to winning," Bates said. "I know every coaching staff is committed to winning, but it doesn't seem like every management staff is when you look at money, draft picks and trading.

"In the old system, [former club president] Tex Schramm was very involved in trying to help the Cowboys win. Jerry Jones [the current owner] is the same.

"Coaching, there's a night and day difference. Landry was the man. He coached everything. The assistant coaches just followed him around. He was the brains of the Cowboys. Coach Johnson is more of a motivator. Coach Landry left it up to the players to motivate themselves."

Johnson motivates and delegates and oversees. When his offense ranked near the bottom of the NFL the last two years, he demoted offensive coordinator Dave Shula, who since has left, and brought in Norv Turner from the Los Angeles Rams. When backup quarterback Babe Laufenberg's poor play in week 16 last year cost the Cowboys a playoff berth, Johnson brought in three new backups to hasten Laufenberg's departure. In little more than two years, Johnson has become the NFL's busiest trader.

The arrival of Turner promises to produce the biggest waves this season, though. In L.A., he coached wide receivers under offensive guru Ernie Zampese. It is Zampese's quick-hitting offense that Turner has brought to Dallas.

"We stress the timing part of it," Turner said. "Like everybody else, we're trying to get the ball thrown before the rush gets to the quarterback."

A year ago Aikman labored in an offense that was slow developing. This year he makes a three- or five-step drop before delivering the ball.

Aikman, who endured 58 sacks the last two years, likes the new scheme because of the quick release and because "it gets a lot of people involved and we wind up utilizing more of our weapons."

The weapons were in evidence last week in the Cowboys' 26-14 victory over Cleveland. Aikman threw for 274 yards, Michael Irvin caught nine passes for 123 yards and Smith ran for 112 yards with 36 more on receptions. The Cowboys had more total yards (395) than they had in any game last season.

Smith, the NFL's offensive rookie of the year last season, thinks the new offense can make him more productive, too.

"It keeps the defense off balance and allows me to pick and choose a hole, as well as catch a pass," he said.

Keeping the defense off balance was a key element, too, in the Cowboys' 27-17 victory over Washington here last November. Smith rushed for a career-high 132 yards and two touchdowns.

"The turning point was when he faked the running game and came out with play-action plays," he said.

It's a new season now for the Cowboys, embarking on a new era. Tonight they get a chance to measure their progress.

"A lot of people predict the Redskins will win the NFC East," Smith said. "So it's a big game for them as well as us. For us, it's a chance to show we're a much better club than we have been."


* WHEN: Tonight at 9 (Ch. 13).

* WHERE: Texas Stadium.

* LAST WEEK: The Cowboys scored on their first four possessions and beat Cleveland, 26-14, as Troy Aikman completed 24 of 37 passes for 274 yards. The Redskins rolled over Detroit 45-0 as triple-threat Earnest Byner gained 83 yards rushing and 25 receiving, and passed for an 18-yard touchdown. Quarterback Mark Rypien was 15-for-19 for 183 yards passing.

* THE RIVALRY: They split the series the last two seasons. Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson is 2-2 against Washington, 7-22 against the rest of the league. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs is 10-10 against Dallas.

* WHAT THE COWBOYS HAVE TO DO: They must keep the pass rush off Aikman, who threw for 429 yards but was sacked 11 times in two games against the Redskins last season. Dallas' new offense is designed to reduce the punishment Aikman takes behind a leaky offensive line.

* WHAT THE REDSKINS HAVE TO DO: Revive a running game that has been negligible against Dallas. In their last three games against the Cowboys, the Redskins have averaged just 2.9 yards a carry and 55 yards rushing a game. Not coincidentally, they have scored only two offensive touchdowns in those games.

* MONDAY NIGHT INCIDENTALS: This is the Cowboys' first Monday night appearance since Oct. 3, 1988, when they lost to New Orleans 20-17. The Redskins have lost six straight Monday night games. Discounting a strike-season victory over Dallas in 1987, the Skins' last Monday night victory was on Nov. 17, 1986, over San Francisco, 14-6.

-- Ken Murray

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